ISBN There, Done That

E-books have created both opportunity and havoc for publishers. Readers have begun to love (or at least claim to love) the benefits of e-reading on a screen. However, the processes for traditional book creation, distribution and use (based on a physical artifact) are fundamentally different from those of a fluid information medium. A few agile technology companies have realized short-term financial gain, but for publishers there are few clear, sustainable best practices for e-book publishing.

One particular business practice, the use of unique ISBNs as identifiers, has had success in the process of tracking and selling physical books. However, publishers have inconsistently applied ISBNs to e-books, often relegating this task to intermediaries or abandoning it altogether in favor of proprietary identifiers.

There are valid reasons for this. Different stakeholders (authors, publishers, distributors, retailers, aggregators, libraries) have different economic reasons for wanting a unique ISBN on a particular work. A standardized ISBN approach is fine in theory, but no one really knows the impact of change on existing practices and IT systems. E-books themselves are more easily modified and aggregated with other content—begging the question of when there is a unique product to which a new ISBN must be assigned.

The biggest problem is the sheer number of unknowns in the process. While some companies are moving forward with their own solutions, most of us haven’t really asked the bigger questions. Is a 13-digit ISBN model adequate for this mutable medium? How can an identifier developed for a physical delivery supply chain be successfully applied to an information-based supply chain? What are the business obstacles to a uniform, high-level ISBN solution? How does one identify a digital work that may (or may not) be comparable to an original print version?

For that matter, is the phrase “original print version” a meaningful concept any longer? For many publishers, this is scary stuff.

Thankfully, help is on the way. Both the Book Industry Study Group and the International ISBN Agency are undertaking projects to gather current industry practices and map out a high-level solution. Ultimately, this could lead to a revision of the recognized standard or, at the very least, an effort to better define what constitutes a “unique product.” As it did for physical books, there is reason to hope that a uniform ISBN approach will do much to contain the costs and promote the effective use of e-books. Until then, however, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

John Parsons (originally published in
Book Business
; re-posted with permission)

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